Workers Vanguard No. 945

23 October 2009


The Decline of New Orleans

By Joe Vetter

We print below, slightly edited for publication, an 8 August document by Joe Vetter, a founding member of the Spartacist League/U.S. and the organizer of the SL’s former New Orleans branch. For many years, from our Atlanta branch, he directed our work in the South.

A great crime was committed against the black and working population of this country by the predictable depopulation of New Orleans around Hurricane Katrina. But while Katrina represented an opportunity for the bourgeoisie, it did not represent the turning point for the population. The turning point for the city occurred in the early 1970s, as is detailed below.

The Port of New Orleans was primarily an outlet for cotton. The Cotton Exchange closed in 1964. This marked a shift by city planners to tourism. In the late 1960s Bourbon Street, Royal Street and the area around Jackson Square in the French Quarter were closed to vehicle traffic. Decatur Street, which had previously been a home to very rough seamen’s bars, was “cleaned up.” The Jax brewery, which was located across the street from Jackson Square, was closed and converted into an upscale tourist shopping center. Plans were laid for building the Louisiana Superdome, and Poydras Street, which was anchored by the Superdome at one end, was widened—driving out the drunks, low-life bars, and boxing gyms. This made room for some swank hotels and One Shell Square, which was the second-largest Shell Oil tower in the U.S.

Meanwhile, an attempt to keep the port alive as a transport center was being made with the completion of MRGO (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet), then called the Ships Channel. For over a century, the port had been plagued by its location—about 100 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the water along this distance was somewhat shallow, with shifting sandbar bottoms. Probably from at least the Civil War on, there existed a union of a few dozen men called the River Pilots whose job was to join ships at the mouth of the river and guide them safely to New Orleans or further north. These were highly skilled jobs that paid extremely well, and you had to be grandfathered into the union. The Ships Channel was supposed to shorten the route to New Orleans and avoid the need for the River Pilots. It also provided a quick outlet for the first stage of the NASA “moon rocket” from the Michoud Assembly Facility to get to the Gulf and on to Florida. Prior to Katrina, the facility was being used to install the heat tiles that keep falling off of the space shuttle. The Ships Channel was the route taken by the waters that flooded the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

Plans were made to open a large container facility at France Road at the corner of the Ships Channel and the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward. The Industrial Canal cuts the Ninth Ward into its upper and lower parts. The question for the shipping bosses was how to deal with the labor question for the port. New Orleans at that time also had large rail yards and a number of scattered trucking facilities. There were two unions contending for organization of the facility, the Teamsters and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA).

If memory serves correctly, the Teamsters were loyal to the Reutherites, and I believe they had connections to the Carlos Marcello Mafia family. This was in opposition to the Baton Rouge Teamsters, who ran some militant strikes but were led by one of the main people to testify against Hoffa before Congress. The port bosses wanted to (and eventually did) sign a sweetheart contract with the New Orleans Teamsters to organize the container facility.

The history of New Orleans labor centers on the port. Longshoremen were organized into about five locals, both along race lines and along skill lines: general cargo (black, with a smaller white local), banana handlers (black, I believe, and dangerous because of tarantulas), grain handlers (mainly black and dangerous because of the possibility of falling into the grain and smothering) and clerks and checkers (white only). The multiple locals became one in the 1980s.

The International Longshoremen’s Association organized the port in the late 1930s after a bitter battle with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). This battle included Catholic church cells organized by Catholic Action that came down on the side of the ILA (see F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South [1967]). John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had decreed that the ILA organize everything east of the Mississippi and the ILWU organize everything west of the Mississippi. New Orleans straddles the river. I was told that in the 1930s the Communist Party’s (CP) largest chapter was in Birmingham, but its second-largest chapter was in New Orleans. An ex-CP organizer told me once that they would regularly sell the Worker on the levees. There had been arguments in the CP in the late 1920s about an orientation to black dock workers in New Orleans versus sharecroppers in Alabama (see Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 [2008]).

In the 1950s and 1960s, being a black longshoreman meant that you were somebody. Everyone made good money, and every political and social event in the black community took place at the union hall. And the union led the labor movement. In 1968, when the black longshore locals downed tools to commemorate the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white longshore workers also downed tools saying, “We don’t work without our black brothers.” Black longshore workers generally favored maintaining racially separate locals because they believed that without them they would be giving up their power. The work environment was integrated even during the harder aspects of Jim Crow segregation. I happened to see an MGM travelogue on New Orleans made about 1950. It opens with scenes of the port and longshoremen working. It showed longshoremen, both black and white, loading cotton and emphasized the role of the port. Almost no mention is made of the food, culture and music. Another scene of longshoremen working at the time can be found in the Richard Widmark film Panic in the Streets (1950). There are also scenes of seamen bidding for jobs in what I believe was the old National Maritime Union hall.

In order to allow the sweetheart contract to be signed with the Teamsters over the France Road container facility, the port bosses had to give up something to the dock workers. Containerization was seen by the ILA as representing a massive loss of work, particularly in general cargo. What was accepted was the idea of “royalty payments.” This meant that longshoremen would be paid for just signing in for work (without actually working). In other words, they sold their jobs and power. This set the stage for the disconnection of the main body of the black population from all except the most marginalized sections of the working class. After one particularly terrible murder, a local resident was interviewed on TV and she made the obvious point: “Somebody around here has got to give these young people something to do.” I believe that the bulk of the black proletariat in New Orleans is now changing sheets in tourist hotels. I recall having an argument with a comrade, well before Katrina, over the fact that poverty in New Orleans was more comparable to the Caribbean than the South Bronx.

Longshore power is very attenuated; it was once the center of labor and black power in New Orleans. In the late 1980s, we distributed the longshore supplement at a number of East Coast ports [see “Let’s Win This One!” reprinted in WV No. 413, 10 October 1986]. We received a good reception at every port that we went to but New Orleans. There it was difficult to give the supplement away to longshoremen. One told me, “I don’t need that, I’m just going in here to punch the clock.” The longshore workforce is aging and its power has diminished. There was a report of a surge in cargo in 1997, but the question is whether this reinvigorated the ILA or went to the France Road facility, or whether it went 30 miles upriver to be unloaded (where it would be considered part of the Port of New Orleans).

Most of the statistics quoted in Workers Vanguard regarding the size of the port undoubtedly included the France Road facility and areas upriver from New Orleans that are worked by New Orleans longshoremen. The France Road facility, I believe, remains closed since Katrina. Also, WV No. 868 (14 April 2006) states that in terms of tonnage, the Port of New Orleans is the fifth-largest in the world. The Port Authority states that it is the twelfth-largest port in the U.S.

Beginning in the mid 1980s and continuing to 1996, I made essentially annual trips to New Orleans to visit family and vacation (not the same thing). It is easy to see most of the Port of New Orleans by going about one-half block behind Café du Monde (a major tourist attraction) and looking. The top of the crescent of the Mississippi at New Orleans is just about at this point. In all of the years that I visited, the only thing that moved on the port was the water on the river and the ferry that plods across the river to the west bank of New Orleans.

I believe that fitting into this picture is the fact that beginning in the early 1970s there was massive white flight from New Orleans to the suburbs. Housing and social life had been very mildly integrated at least from during the 1950s. A black mayor was elected, and the largely black transit workers won a non-company union for the first time since 1927. Also, the American Federation of Teachers won a contract. Jefferson Parish (adjacent to New Orleans) attempted to seal off black New Orleans by building a wall at the entrance to the parish. Jefferson Parish is the same suburb that elected David Duke to the state legislature.

At about the same time, the public housing projects became points of sharp contention between the utterly corrupt police force and the black population. The Black Panthers were rooted out in 1970, but resistance to the cops continued. I knew a fireman whose area covered the Desire Projects (maybe the largest public housing project in the U.S.). To go into this area, a fire truck required four cop cars as escort and would still take sniper fire. To get into the projects to meet with the Panthers, the two of us who went in had to be escorted by Panthers. That the bourgeoisie was not going to repopulate the projects after Katrina was not a surprise.

The first two articles in WV on Katrina were good pieces of propaganda against a racist atrocity. But later pieces, written seven months or so after the hurricane, began to push a line of a proletarian power center in New Orleans. Such power does exist in other Gulf and South Atlantic ports. I believe that it was the forum that was given by Barry James that appeared in Black History that finally began to get the situation in New Orleans right [see “Race, Class and the Fight for a Workers America,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 20, December 2007]. The quote in the talk from “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966)—emphasizing that “the fight must be fought now to maintain Negroes as part of the working class”—exactly sets the stage for what was going on in New Orleans prior to Katrina. The city had ceased to be a proletarian center long before Katrina. Given the opportunity, the bourgeoisie might opt for a similar tactic in cities like Detroit, although Detroit already has about half—or less—the population it had in 1950.

There is a document from about 1973 that was written in New Orleans. That document says most of what is here, as I recall. It was adopted by a motion in the branch as a basis for doing sales at the ILA hiring hall. Three weeks later the longshoremen wildcatted over not receiving royalty payments. We covered this in WV and as I remember sold hundreds of papers. Irvin Joseph, who headed the wildcat, was an out-bureaucrat who later became head of the ILA in New Orleans.